Any screenwriter who had suggested this plot to a film producer would probably have been thrown out on his heels: five years after his family fled the Third Reich, a Jewish youth was taken prisoner on Soviet soil in the summer of 1941. He pretends to be a Catholic "ethnic German", becomes an interpreter for a Wehrmacht unit and, as the youngest member of the company, becomes a kind of mascot.
But things get even wilder: his company commander wants to adopt him and sends him to Germany, where he attends an elite Hitler Youth school and is even considered a prime example of a typical East Baltic ethnic German. A Waffen-SS officer becomes his guardian. In April 1945, the now 20-year-old, but looking younger, was taken prisoner by the US and revealed his Jewish identity, finally emigrating to Israel a few years later.
This biography is so unbelievable that it can only be badly made up - or true. In the case of Salomon "Solly" or "Sally" Perel, the latter was true. He was born on April 21, 1925 in Peine, Lower Saxony, and died on February 2, 2023, two and a half months before his 98th birthday, in his adopted home surrounded by his family.
Solly only told his life story more than four decades after the war. After a life-threatening operation, he decided to write a book. It first appeared in French in 1990, and two years later in German under the title Ich war Hitlerjunge Salomon. At the same time, a feature film by producer Arthur Brauner and director Agnieszka Holland was released in French cinemas at the end of 1990 and in German cinemas a year later.
At first there were doubts about the story, but a wealth of documents and photos showed that it was true despite all odds. Solly, born in Peine as the youngest son of immigrant Jewish Poles, suffered from anti-Semitic attacks from 1933, like his parents and older siblings. The family decided to return to Lodz, from where they had emigrated to Germany. But in 1939, when Solly was 14 years old and had just finished elementary school, the Wehrmacht conquered western Poland and also Lodz.
In the spring of 1940, Solly's parents decided they were too old to flee again, but urged their sons to go to the now Soviet-occupied part of Poland. Solly made it and was accommodated in a house of the Soviet youth organization Komsomol - he looked much younger than he was.
Just before dawn on June 22, 1941, a teacher entered the shelter's dormitory and ordered all the Jewish children to pack their things. The Wehrmacht had attacked the Soviet Union and was rapidly advancing. The teacher hoped to be able to bring the Jewish Komsomol members eastwards into the interior of the Soviet Union. But Solly lost touch with the group and, along with other refugees, fell into German hands on the way to Minsk.
Everyone had to line up, then a "selection" began, as was customary at the time: Jews and communists had to step out and were taken away. Solly happened to be at the end of the line, giving him ample time while he waited to destroy what made him identifiable as a Jew or Komsomol member.
When it was his turn, Solly claimed he was an ethnic German named Josef Perjell, who lost his identity papers during the fighting. Nobody questioned that. Since he spoke German as well as Polish and Russian fluently, he joined a company of the 12th Panzer Division, for which he mainly held talks with captured Red Army soldiers.
The soldiers gave him the nickname "Jupp", which he kept for the rest of the war. A comrade, however, watched Solly bathe and told him he was Jewish – but he died a little later without betraying him.
In 1942 Solly had to leave the division because he was still a minor. He came to Germany, to the Reich Academy for Youth Leadership of the Hitler Youth in Braunschweig, 25 kilometers south-east of his hometown of Peine. This is where the junior leaders of the NS youth organization were trained – and this is where Solly Perel became the “Hitlerjunge Salomon”.
He stayed there until April 1945 and took courses on the Nazi "Weltanschauung". He also worked as a toolmaker in the "Volkswagen-Vorwerk", as it says on his "Stammblatt", and helped teach younger Hitler Youth members. In the subject of racial studies, the teacher explained the supposed external characteristics of a “typical East Baltic ethnic German” to Solly of all people.
At least once Solly gave himself away, but the compassion of an older woman saved him. Once he even traveled to Lodz, now called "Litzmannstadt", to look for his parents in the ghetto, but was unsuccessful.
In order not to attract negative attention, he became a model student. But it remained dangerous: in the summer of 1944, the police asked him to provide proof of his parentage. A short time later, the responsible police station burned down in a bomb attack.
When US troops approached Braunschweig in the spring of 1945, the Hitler Youth were to form a "last contingent". Solly was lucky again: on his 20th birthday, April 21, 1945, he was taken prisoner by the US without having to fight. He revealed himself and was able to convince the officer in charge, so he was not sent to a transit camp for soldiers, but to accommodation for "displaced persons". Here he learned about the fate of his family: his parents and sister died in the Holocaust, his two older brothers survived and emigrated to Israel like him.
After his book was published in German in 1992, Solly Perel began telling his life story as a contemporary witness, primarily to schoolchildren. Three schools in Lower Saxony bear his name.